Coach K, JoePa and the Culture of Winning

by Dax-Devlon Ross

I just finished watching Coach K’s Record Climb, an ESPN film celebrating Duke men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski’s road to becoming the winningest coach in college basketball history. It was wonderful tribute to a great coach whose humanity and personal integrity are as much a part of his legacy and appeal as are his 900+ victories. Though I’ve never met him and was never good enough to play for him, Coach K and his remarkably static jet black helmet have been an integral part of my winters as far back as I can recall. I am and will always be ambivalent about Duke basketball, but, in the same way I can distinguish between Kobe the human being and Kobe the player, I’ve always been able to appreciate Coach K.  

Celebrity Coaches play a unique and powerful role in American culture. The late UCLA coach John Wooden won a Presidential National Medal of Freedom in 2003. A play about Geen Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi is enjoying a successful Broadway run. Last month HBO premiered a documentary featuring Hall of Fame St. Anthony’s High School coach Bob Hurley, Sr. Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summit shocked the nation when she announced she had Alzheimer’s this past summer.

Coaches operate at the center of our culture’s twin obsessions with moral virtue and victory at all costs. They are big name brands and national treasures, leaders and teachers, wisdom bearers and disciplinarians. They dictate and nurture. In a world of constant flux, they are often fixtures. The best of them model an unparalleled consistency and commitment to excellence. And in most cases they would do it even were not as lucrative as it is.

There is, however, a certain undeniable irony in Coach K (note how casually I refer to a man I’ve never personally met) tying former Indiana and Texas Tech Coach Bob Knight’s record the same week the winningest coach in college football, Penn State’s Joe Paterno, was ignominiously removed from his perch for his involvement in sex abuse scandal. Paterno’s removal set off violent protests on campus and triggered an avalanche of commentary and analysis from both sides that cascaded out of the sports section and onto the front pages of papers across the country.

Given this week’s headlines, it was both telling and chilling to watch a glowing tribute to Coach K in which a group of Cameron Crazies — those die-hard Duke supporters who paint themselves in Duke blue and white for each home game — got on their hands and knees to worship the Krzyzewskiville sign outside of the arena while another student proudly called  him a god and said he “is Duke.” (Equally telling was that the filmmakers, producers and network failed to edit or address these actions and statements in light of this week’s events.) In a different time we might look at these actions and think wistfully about college innocence. After what happened at Penn State this week, we know better. Coaches are gods in the minds of their followers.

And who can blame them?

Our elected officials fail us regularly. Our financial leaders seem only to care about enriching themselves. Our thought leaders are silenced by the echo chamber of idiocy. Our spiritual leaders have proven themselves all-too unworthy our faith and devotion. With so many of our traditional institutions in crisis, it’s little wonder that people — particularly young people — turn to sports and the figure of the great coach for solace. The team is the coach’s expression of his or her core values. Win or lose, what happens on the court or field is an unequivocal and unambiguous affirmation of his or her principles. For more than four decades Penn State was Paterno. For more than 30 years Duke has been Krzyzewski. If there’s anyone who can learn from JoePa’s abrupt fall from grace it’s Coach K. Paterno’s negligence (some say arrogance) broke a community and likely destroyed a program for the foreseeable future. The only other coach  in all of sports with the power to cause such widespread ruin to is Coach K. And I can’t stomach the thought of what that would look like.